The image is from Wikipedia Commons
Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca
Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca
Birth name: Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca
|Died||c. 1557–1560 (aged 64–72)
|Occupation||Treasurer, explorer, author of La relación y comentarios, and ex-governor of Río de Plata in Argentina|
|Parent(s)||Francisco de Vera (father), Teresa Cabeza de Vaca y de Zurita (mother)|
Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (Spanish pronunciation: [ˈalβaɾ ˈnũɲeθ kaˈβeθa ðe ˈβaka] (listen); c. 1488/1490/1492 – c. 1557/1558/1559/1560) was a Spanish explorer of the New World, and one of four survivors of the 1527 Narváez expedition. During eight years of traveling across what is now the US Southwest, he became a trader and faith healer to various Native American tribes before reconnecting with Spanish civilization in Mexico in 1536. After returning to Spain in 1537, he wrote an account, first published in 1542 as La relación y comentarios ("The Account and Commentaries"), which in later editions was retitled Naufragios y comentarios ("Shipwrecks and Commentaries"). Cabeza de Vaca is sometimes considered a proto-anthropologist for his detailed accounts of the many tribes of Native Americans that he encountered.
In 1540, Cabeza de Vaca was appointed adelantado of what is now Paraguay, where he was governor and captain general of New Andalusia. He worked to build up the population of Buenos Aires but, charged with poor administration, he was arrested in 1544 and then transported to Spain for trial in 1545. Although his sentence was eventually commuted, he never returned to the Americas. He died in Seville.
Early life and family
Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was born around 1490 in the Castilian town of Jerez de la Frontera, Cádiz. His father, Francisco de Vera was an hidalgo, a rank of minor Spanish nobility. His mother was Teresa Cabeza de Vaca, also from an hidalgo family. He was named after his mother's great-grandfather, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca,[a] but the real influence in his life was his paternal grandfather, Pedro de Vera.
Pedro de Vera was described by contemporaries as an expert in fighting battles on land and sea. He led raids against the Moors in North Africa and in 1483 completed the conquest of Grand Canaria, one of the major islands of the Canaries. He was appointed military governor of the island and used his position to capture Canary natives (Guanches) and sell them as slaves in Spain. When natives on the neighboring island of Gomera revolted, he brutally put down the rebellion, killing males over the age of fifteen and selling the women and children into slavery. He was heavily fined for his actions and recalled to Castile in 1490. Cabeza de Vaca would have heard of these exploits growing up; many years later he named a province in South America, Vera, in honor of his grandfather.
Cabeza de Vaca's father and grandfather died around 1506 and his mother died in 1509, leaving behind a modest estate for her seven children. His younger siblings went to live with their aunt but Álvar had already entered the service of Juan Alfonso Pérez de Guzmán, 3rd Duke of Medina Sidonia in 1503. The house of Medina Sidonia was one of the most powerful in Castile and was a dominant force in Seville, the commercial center of Spain's growing overseas empire. Cabeza de Vaca served as a page and then chamberlain for the duke. In 1511 he traveled to Italy to fight against the French in the Italian Wars. In February 1512 he took part in the Battle of Ravenna where the Spanish were badly defeated and Cabeza de Vaca was wounded. He later served as the royal standard-bearer in Gaeta, near Naples.
In 1513 he returned to Spain, still in the service of Medina Sidonia. At some point he married María Marmolejo, member of a prominent converso family in Seville. When the Revolt of the Comuneros broke out in 1520 against the new Spanish king, Charles V, Cabeza de Vaca fought alongside the duke on behalf of the crown. When the comuneros tried unsuccessfully to seize control in Seville in September, the duke put him in charge of defending one of the city gates; in December he fought to liberate the city of Tordesillas; and on 23 April 1521 he participated in the defeat of the comuneros at the battle of Villalar. Later in 1521 when the French king, Francis I, invaded Navarre, Cabeza de Vaca fought against them in the battle of Puente de la Reina.
In 1527, Cabeza de Vaca appeared at the royal court in Valladolid and received an appointment as royal treasurer for an expedition to be led by conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez to explore and conquer La Florida, a portion of North America roughly comprising today's southeastern United States. The reasons for his selection are not known but his history of loyal military service to the crown was certainly a critical qualification. He also had a relative, Luis Cabeza de Vaca, serving on the all-important Council of the Indies.
On 11 December 1526, Charles V commissioned Pánfilo de Narváez to explore, conquer and settle a portion of North America called La Florida, a territory vaguely described as stretching along the Gulf coast from Mexico to Florida. Cabeza de Vaca was named treasurer by royal appointment, a position that put him second in command and made him chiefly responsible to look after the emperor's interests during the expedition. He was promised an annual salary of 130.000 maravedies, payable upon his return. Their fleet of five vessels set sail from Spain on 17 June 1527, carrying 600 soldiers and colonists, including a few married women and African slaves.
When they stopped in Hispaniola for supplies, Narváez lost approximately 150 of his men, who chose to stay behind rather than continue with the expedition. They spent forty-five days on the island re-provisioning the fleet and constructing a sixth ship. They were especially anxious to acquire horses, but there was a shortage of them in Hispaniola, so the expedition continued to Cuba, where they hoped to recruit more men and buy horses. Narváez anchored at Santiago de Cuba and ordered Cabeza de Vaca to take two ships and proceed further up the coast to pick up additional provisions at Trinidad. In October, while Cabeza de Vaca was ashore negotiating for supplies, a hurricane hit the coast, resulting in the destruction of both ships and the loss of sixty men and twenty horses. Narváez arrived in early November to pick up the survivors. Fearful of encountering another storm, Narváez decided to overwinter in Cuba. The four remaining ships anchored in the Bay of Jagua under the command of Cabeza de Vaca.
While Cabeza de Vaca watched over the ships and crew, Narváez remained on shore to find replacements for the lost ships and hire more men. In February 1528, he returned to the Bay of Jagua with one additional ship and another one waiting for them in Havana. They resumed their expedition to La Florida with the intention of first stopping in Havana to pick up the final ship and more supplies. Before reaching Havana however, they were hit by another storm and blown off course into the Gulf of Mexico. Short of supplies and fresh water, they decided to push on toward Florida rather than try to get back to Cuba. In April they sighted land, anchored and went ashore. Although the location of their landing has been much debated, more recent opinion leans toward the vicinity of Tampa Bay.
During a quick reconnaissance of the area, they came upon a few small villages of Indians belonging to the Safety Harbor culture. Communicating with them through sign language, the Spanish were informed that a community or region called Apalachee lay to the north and was rich with food and gold. Cabeza de Vaca later noted that whenever Narváez expressed interest in something, the Indians assured him it could be found in great quantities at Apalachee. As a result, Narváez was determined to lead a force north into the interior to find this rich country.
Despite strong objections from Cabeza de Vaca, Narváez decided to split his expedition. He would lead some 300 men and 42 horses overland to Apalachee while the remaining crew, including the women, would sail ahead to find a suitable harbor and wait their return. Cabeza de Vaca protested that dividing their forces would put both groups in danger without any certainty that they would be able to find each other again. He advised that everyone remain with the ships until a suitable harbor could be found to serve as their base camp. Narváez ignored his advice and suggested that if Cabeza de Vaca was afraid, he should stay with the ships. Cabeza de Vaca rejected the suggestion of cowardice and participated in the overland march. He later wrote, "I preferred risking my life to placing my honor in jeopardy."
Apalachee had no gold but had only corn, but the explorers were told a village known as Aute, about 5 or 9 days away, was rich. They pushed on through the swamps, harassed by the Native Americans. A few Spanish men were killed and more wounded. When they arrived in Aute, they found that the inhabitants had burned down the village and left. But the fields had not been harvested, so at least the Spanish scavenged food there. After several months of fighting native inhabitants through wilderness and swamp, the party decided to abandon the interior and try to reach Pánuco.
Slaughtering and eating their remaining horses, they gathered the stirrups, spurs, horseshoes and other metal items. They fashioned a bellows from deer hide to make a fire hot enough to forge tools and nails. They used these in making five primitive boats to use to get to Mexico. Cabeza de Vaca commanded one of these vessels, each of which held 50 men. Depleted of food and water, the men followed the coast westward. But when they reached the mouth of the Mississippi River, the powerful current swept them out into the Gulf, where the five rafts were separated by a hurricane. Some lives were lost forever, including that of Narváez.
Two crafts with about 40 survivors each, including Cabeza de Vaca, wrecked on or near Galveston Island (now part of Texas). Of the 80 or so survivors, only 15 lived past that winter. The explorers called the island Malhado (“Ill fated” in Spanish), or the Island of Doom. They tried to repair the rafts, using what remained of their own clothes as oakum to plug holes, but they lost the rafts to a large wave.
As the number of survivors dwindled rapidly, they were enslaved for four years by various American Indian nomadic tribes of the upper Gulf Coast. The tribes to which Cabeza de Vaca was enslaved included the Hans and the Capoques, and tribes later called the Karankawa and Coahuiltecan. Only four men managed to escape: Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, and an African slave of Dorantes, Estevanico.
Traveling mostly with this small group, Cabeza de Vaca explored what is now the U.S. state of Texas, as well as the northeastern Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo León and Coahuila, and possibly smaller portions of New Mexico and Arizona. He traveled on foot through the then-colonized territories of Texas and the coast[which?]. He continued through Coahuila and Nueva Vizcaya (present-day states of Chihuahua and Durango); then down the Gulf of California coast to what is now Sinaloa, Mexico, over a period of roughly eight years. Throughout those years, Cabeza de Vaca and the other men adapted to the lives of the indigenous people they stayed with, whom he later described as Roots People, the Fish and Blackberry People, or the Fig People, depending on their principal foods.
During his wanderings, passing from tribe to tribe, Cabeza de Vaca later reported that he developed sympathies for the indigenous peoples. He became a trader and a healer, which gave him some freedom to travel among the tribes. As a healer, Cabeza de Vaca performed the first surgical operation (a sagittectomy) of the new world. His group attracted numerous native followers, who regarded them as "children of the sun", endowed with the power to heal and destroy. As Cabeza de Vaca grew healthier, he decided that he would make his way to Pánuco, supporting himself through trading.  He finally decided to try to reach the Spanish colony in Mexico. Many natives were said to accompany the explorers on their journey across what is now known as the American Southwest and northern Mexico.
After finally reaching the colonized lands of New Spain, where he first encountered fellow Spaniards near modern-day Culiacán, Cabeza de Vaca and the three other men reached Mexico City. From there he sailed back to Europe in 1537.
Numerous researchers have tried to trace his route across the Southwest. As he did not begin writing his chronicle until he was back in Spain, he had to rely on memory. He did not have the instruments (clock and astrolabe) to determine his location; he had to rely on dead reckoning, and was uncertain of his route. Aware that his recollection has numerous errors in chronology and geography, historians have worked to put together pieces of the puzzle to discern his paths.
Return to America
In 1540, Cabeza de Vaca was appointed adelantado of the Río de la Plata in South America. The colony comprised parts of what is now Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Cabeza de Vaca was assigned to find a usable route from this colony to the colony in Peru, on the other side of the Andes Mountains on the Pacific Coast.
En route, he disembarked from his fleet at Santa Catarina Island in modern Brazil. With an indigenous force, plus 250 musketeers and 26 horses, he followed native trails discovered by Aleixo Garcia overland to the district's Spanish capital, Asunción, far inland on the great Paraguay River. Cabeza de Vaca is thought to have been the first European to see the Iguaçu Falls.
In March 1542, Cabeza de Vaca met with Domingo Martínez de Irala and relieved him of his position as governor. The government of Asunción pledged loyalty to Cabeza de Vaca, and Irala was assigned to explore a possible route to Peru. Once Irala returned and reported, Cabeza de Vaca planned his own expedition. He hoped to reach Los Reyes (a base that Irala set up) and push forward into the jungle in search of a route to the gold and silver mines of Peru. The expedition did not go well, and Cabeza de Vaca returned to Asunción.
During his absence, Irala had stirred up resistance to Cabeza de Vaca's rule and capitalized on political rivalries. Scholars widely agree that Cabeza de Vaca had an unusually sympathetic attitude towards the Native Americans for his time. The elite settlers in modern Argentina, known as encomenderos, generally did not agree with his enlightened conduct toward the Natives; they wanted to use them for labor. Because he lost elite support, and Buenos Aires was failing as a settlement, not attracting enough residents, Martínez de Irala arrested Cabeza de Vaca in 1544 for poor administration. The former explorer was returned to Spain in 1545 for trial.
Although eventually exonerated, Cabeza de Vaca never returned to South America. He wrote an extensive report on the Río de la Plata colony in South America, strongly criticizing the conduct of Martínez de Irala. The report was bound with his earlier La Relación and published under the title Comentarios (Commentary). He died poor in Seville around the year 1560.
La relación de Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca
La relación de Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca ("The story of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca") is the account of his experiences with the Narváez expedition and after being wrecked on Galveston Island in November 1528. Cabeza de Vaca and his last three men struggled to survive. They wandered along the Texas coast as prisoners of the Han and Capoque American Indians for two years, while Cabeza de Vaca observed the people, picking up their ways of life and customs. They traveled through the American Southwest and ultimately reached Mexico City, nearly eight years after being wrecked on the island.
In 1537, Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain, where he wrote his narratives of the Narváez expedition. These narratives were collected and published in 1542 in Spain. They are now known as The Relation of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. The narrative of Cabeza de Vaca is the “first European book devoted completely to North America.” His detailed account describes the lives of numerous tribes of American Indians of the time. Cabeza de Vaca showed compassion and respect for native peoples, which, together with the great detail he recorded, distinguishes his narrative from others of the period.
Role of observer
Cabeza de Vaca reported on the customs and ways of American Indian life, aware of his status as an early European explorer. He spent eight years with various peoples, including the Capoque, Han, Avavare, and Arbadao. He describes details of the culture of the Malhado people, the Capoque, and Han American Indians, such as their treatment of offspring, their wedding rites, and their main sources of food. Cabeza de Vaca and his three fellow survivors at times served as slaves to the American Indians to survive. Through his observations, Cabeza de Vaca provides insights into 16th-century American Indian life near the present-day Mexico-Texas border.
For many peoples the accounts of Cabeza de Vaca and Hernando de Soto are the only written records of their existence. By the time of the next European contact, many had vanished, possibly from diseases carried by Cabeza de Vaca and his companions.
Ambassador for Christ
One of Cabeza de Vaca's greatest achievements of his journey, was that he played an important role as an ambassador to bring peace throughout the land. As the party of travellers passed from one tribe to the next, warring tribes would immediately make peace and become friendly, so that the natives could receive the party and give them gifts. Cabeza notes in his personal account of his journey that in this way; "We left the whole country in peace." Cabeza saw these events as part of his mission and purpose in America, acknowledging in his account that he believed that: "God was guiding us to where we could serve Him.".
Cabeza's greatest challenge as an ambassador came when he attempted to bring peace between the conquering Spanish army and the natives. As Cabeza approached Spanish settlement, he and his companions were very grieved to see the destruction of the native villages and enslavement of the natives. The fertile land lay uncultivated and the natives were nearly starving, hiding in the forest, for fear of the Spanish army.
Cabeza then encountered Diego de Alcaraz, commander of a slavery expedition of about 20 horsemen and attempted to negotiate peace between them and the natives. However, as soon as they departed, Diego went back on his word and plundered Cabeza's entourage of natives that he had sent back home. Not long after this, Cabeza encountered the chief Alcalde (Spanish captain of the province) named Melchor Díaz. Melchor Díaz ordered Cabeza to bring the natives back from the forests so that they would re-cultivate the land. Cabeza and Melchor invited the natives to convert to Christianity and the natives did so willingly. Cabeza instructed them to build a large wooden cross in each village, which would cause members of the Spanish army to pass through the village and not attack it. Soon afterward the Diego de Alcaraz expedition returned and explained to Melchor that they were shocked at how, on their return journey, not only did they find the land repopulated, but the natives coming to greet them with crosses in hand and also gave them provisions. Melchor then ordered Diego that no harm be done to them.
Cabeza de Vaca wrote this narrative to Charles V to “transmit what I saw and heard in the nine years I wandered lost and miserable over many remote lands”. He wanted to convey “not merely a report of positions and distances, flora and fauna, but of the customs of the numerous indigenous people I talked with and dwelt among, as well as any other matters I could hear of or observe”. He took care to present facts, as a full account of what he observed. The Relation is the only account of many details concerning the indigenous people whom he encountered. The accuracy of his account has been validated by later reports of others, as well as by the oral traditions of descendants of some of the tribes.
Cabeza's account also served as a petition to the King of Spain to both establish a permanent Christian mission and eventually establish the native tribes as a nation under the governance of Spain. In his reflection Cabeza writes to the king of Spain:
- May God in His infinite mercy grant that in the days of Your Majesty and under your power and sway, these people become willingly and sincerely subjects of the true Lord Who created and redeemed them. We believe they will be, and that Your Majesty is destined to bring it about, as it will not be at all difficult. 
American Indian nations noted by name
Cabeza De Vaca identified the following peoples by name in his La Relación (1542). The following list shows his names, together with what scholars suggested in 1919 were the likely tribes identified by names used in the 20th century. By that time, tribal identification was also related to more linguistic data.
Possible Karankawan groups:
- Capoques – Cocos
- Deaguanes – Cujanes
- Quevenes – Copanes
- Guaycones – Guapites
- Camones – Karankaguases?
Related to Karankawa:
- Charruco – Bidai-Orcoquiza
- Han – Bidai-Orcoquiza
Possible Tonkawan groups:
- Mendica – Tamiques
- Mariames – Jaranames
- Iguaces – Anaquas
Possible Coahuiltecan or desert groups:
- The "Fig People"
- Comos – Comecrudo
In 1555, after a four-year position as Adelantado in Rio de la Plata, Cabeza de Vaca wrote from memory a chronicle of his in South America. It is believed that his secretary at the time, Pero Hernández, transcribed Cabeza de Vaca's account in what is known as Comentarios. The publication of Comentarios was appended to La relación as a joint publication in Valladolid, Spain entitled: Naufragios. At that time, explorers often published their reports of travels in foreign lands.
In 1906, Naufragios was published in a new edition in Madrid, Spain. The introduction says the intent of this edition was to publicize Cabeza de Vaca's observations and experiences to strengthen authentic representations. This has been described as having the objective of portraying Cabeza de Vaca as less aggressive , while trying to authenticate his role as a sympathetic observer of the natives.
Place in Chicano literature
Herrera (2011) classifies Cabeza de Vaca's La Relacion as the first major contribution to Chicano literature. Scholars have identified five major periods of Chicano literature: Spanish Mexican, Mexican American, Annexation, Chicano Renaissance, and Modern. Cabeza de Vaca is classified as part of the Spanish Mexican period; he recounted eight years of travel and survival in the area of Chicano culture: present-day Texas, New Mexico, and northern Mexico. His account is the first known written description of the American Southwest.
- The drama feature film Cabeza de Vaca (1991), a Mexican production, was directed by Nicolás Echevarría and starred Juan Diego. Based on Naufragios, the film was entered into the 41st Berlin International Film Festival. A DVD version was released in 2012.
Representation in other media
Laila Lalami's novel, The Moor's Account (2014), is a fictional memoir of Estevanico, the Moroccan slave who survived the journey and accompanied Cabeza de Vaca through the Southwest. He is considered to be the first black explorer of North America. Lalami claims that the chronicle gives him one sentence: "The fourth [survivor] is Estevanico, an Arab Negro from Azamor." However, there are several others referenced to him in the account.
His story is noted in the first episode of Ken Burns' The West, a PBS documentary which first aired in 1996.
Cabeza de Vaca is a playable character in the board game Age of Exploration (1994) by Thomas Lehmann.
Ancestors of Cabeza de Vaca
- Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez. The Journey of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and his companions from Florida to the Pacific 1528-1536. Translation of La Relacion, ed. Ad. F. Bandelier. New York, Allerton Book Co. 1904.
- Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez. The Narrative of Cabeza De Vaca, Translation of La Relacion, ed. Rolena Adorno and Patrick Charles Pautz. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press 2003. ISBN 0-8032-6416-X (one of many editions)
- Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez. Cabeza de Vaca's Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America, Translation of La Relación, Cyclone Covey. Santa Fe, NM: University of New Mexico Press 1983. ISBN 0-8263-0656-X
- The Account: Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca's Relacíon. Translated by Martin Favata and Jose Fernández. Houston: Arte Público Press. February 1993 . ISBN 978-1558850606.CS1 maint: others (link)
- Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez. Chronicle of the Narváez Expedition, Translation of La Relacion, translated by David Frye, edited by Ilan Stavans. Norton Critical Edition, 2013. ISBN 978-0393918151
- Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez. The Commentaries of Alvar Nunez Cabeza De Vaca., The Conquest of the River Plate, part II. London: Hakluyt, 1891 (first English edition).
- This page is based on the Wikipedia article Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca; it is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License (CC-BY-SA). You may redistribute it, verbatim or modified, providing that you comply with the terms of the CC-BY-SA.